The Merchant of Venice


By William Shakespeare
Presented by the New Jewish Theatre

Directed by Robin Weatherall

Through December 18, 2005

If you’ve never seen Shakespeare performed and your impression of the playwright is that of an esteemed intellectual, it will come as a shock to hear lines like “The Jew is the very devil incarnation!” and “I hate him, for he is a Christian!” The Bard has been accused of many things, but political correctness is not one of them. Many a time, The Merchant of Venice has been written off as an anti-Semitic rant, but the New Jewish Theatre lobbies hard to set the record straight.

Turning two and a half hours of medieval dialogue into a digestible meal for the new millennium is a daunting task. But English director Robin Weatherall finds a myriad of ways to add zest: colorful costumes, sound and lighting effects, a musical score, and clever improvisation on the part of the actors.

Antonio (Kevin Beyer), the merchant in question, comes to the aid of his young, love-struck friend Bassanio (Jim Butz), who has fallen for Portia (Lauren Dunagan), the conniving lady of Belmont. Bassanio needs cash to court the lady properly, so he and Antonio pay a reluctant visit to the notorious moneylender, Shylock the Jew (Jerry Vogel). The resulting contract, preposterous by today’s standards, perhaps made sense in 1596: If the money is not repaid on time, Shylock reserves the right to carve a pound’s worth of flesh from Antonio’s torso.

Played out with a heap of religious slurs, this premise may seem bizarre for a comedy. Bear in mind, however, Shakespearean comedy means only that the story begins in disorder and ends in order. Whether putting the pieces back together results in hilarity is up to the cast. Fortunately, this crew goes for the laughs; unfortunately, many of them were lost on the geriatric audience that kept nodding off on opening night.

Strong acting chops are everywhere in this show, but veterans Beyer and Vogel, who are about the same age as their characters, outshine the younger thespians in every scene. Vogel, in particular, manages to evoke sympathy one moment and revulsion the next, from the play’s first act right through to its last. By comparison, the chemistry between leading lovers Bassanio and Portia is a bit lackluster, while the effervescent maid Nerissa (Jennifer Theby) delivers so many comic moments that she practically turns a supporting role into a lead.

The Merchant of Venice is more than a reminder of a prejudiced past or a foreshadower of the Holocaust. It’s a layered array of mind games, sexual tension, and suspense. It’s also an ode to feminism, as the female characters not only reduce their suitors to fools but also ultimately decide whether Shylock will get his pound of flesh.

Don’t make the mistake of dodging this highbrow performance in favor of lighter fare. Give Shakespeare’s most infamous legal drama a day in court.

The New Jewish Theatre continues William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice through December 18 at the Sarah and Abraham Studio Theatre in the Jewish Community Center (2 Millstone Campus Dr. in Creve Coeur). Performance are Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $22 to $24, and are available for purchase at the box office. Reservations are highly recommended, and can be made by calling 314-442-3283. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.

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